Verbum Ultimum: A Space to Grieve

A year later, the College must give students space for collective healing.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 5/13/22 4:05am

by Sophie Bailey / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

The turbulence that was the 2020-21 academic year will not escape the collective memory of the Dartmouth student body. Last year, mental health for many students was at rock bottom; COVID-19 policies were strict and students were feeling the disruption of an ongoing pandemic. This was especially difficult for the Class of 2024, as they transitioned into a new space without much support. Three first-year students — Beau DuBray ’24, Connor Tiffany ’24 and Elizabeth Reimer ’24 — died by suicide, and a fourth student — Lamees Kareem ’22 — died of a medical condition. 

Despite some small efforts otherwise, Dartmouth has yet to come together as a whole community to grieve the loss of these students. As we approach the anniversary of Elizabeth’s death and the widespread outrage directed at the College which accompanied it, the Editorial Board calls on the administration to remember these losses. A year later, we are still in need of community healing — and the College must dedicate a student-centered space for each of these lives to be remembered. 

The loss of one classmate alone is cause for mourning. In May of 2020, as the COVID-19 death count reached 100,000 lives, Meghan O’Rourke wrote a piece for The Atlantic reflecting on individual grief in the midst of a pandemic. Grief, she wrote, is just as physical as it is mental — leading to “changes in cortisol levels, memory, sleep, and appetite, leaving the mourner exhausted, scattered, struggling to resume ‘normalcy.’” 

In an especially poignant moment, O’Rourke wrote, “​​I thought about how different it is to mourn a single death and to mourn a death in the middle of a mass trauma — to mourn amid so much death.”

Our community experienced the loss of four classmates while living through a global pandemic, creating layers of collective trauma that are still deeply felt within our community. 

Sociologist Kai Erikson describes collective trauma as a force that breaks bonds and tears apart the sense of community holding people together. Resulting from a traumatic event which touches even those people who were not directly involved, collective trauma leaves the overwhelming sense that a part of every individual has been lost — and the community itself “no longer exists as an effective source of support.” 

This communal wound may be collective, but it is felt on an individual level. And the experience of grief leaves us with more than just an emotional burden: The trauma that comes with loss, whether individual or collective, can have intense mental health consequences for individuals — ranging from short-term anxiety or depression to long-term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

And though it may seem like an individual burden, healing from collective trauma is just that: collective. There must be emotional support, strong social networks, integration and a community commitment to healing. Due to the ongoing pandemic, there were no formal memorials for the individual students — frequently leaving us, their classmates, to grieve alone. Many of us could not find closure. We could not honor the lives lost or the lasting impact the losses would have on our community. 

And though the College held a vigil after the death of Elizabeth, this was both too little and too late. To many members of this Editorial Board, it felt performative and like an easy fix for a long-term problem. Moreover, students who were not in the Upper Valley could not attend the vigil — and were left without any community within which they could heal. 

In the absence of meaningful mourning, students took it upon themselves to start this healing process. In May 2021, Elizabeth’s friends created a memorial in her honor. Last weekend, there was an honoring for Beau at the Powwow — with a meaningful commitment to continue honoring Beau in the future, hopefully with his family present. 

This ceremony was both beautiful and powerful. It allowed Beau to be honored within his own culture. It allowed students a space to grieve together. It allowed for catharsis. It was the first step in a long future of community healing from this collective trauma we endured — as we attempt to make some meaning out of our worlds which have been shaken.

Time may heal all wounds, but it has not been enough time for these wounds to heal. Powwow demonstrated how these wounds are still very much open. And while individual students may still be grieving the loss of their friend or classmate, the community as a whole is attempting to heal, and searching for a collective meaning within the traumatic memories of last year. 

The silence by the College in this regard is painful. Each anniversary pulls the wound open. We need to be together as a community — because in the collective, you know you are not alone. You know you are not the only one, even subconsciously, struggling to return to normalcy after last year. O’Rourke writes, “As we build new practices for this moment, we must name the void: To mourn in a moment of collective grief is to experience not one but multiple layers of loss.”

Yes, we are students at an Ivy League institution. But we are human — not machines. The College needs to recognize this and build time into the term for grieving, for healing. And they must offer a space to do so. The administration should work with students to create a permanent physical space in remembrance of the classmates and friends we lost last year. It should not be overpowering; it is not for optics. The space should be created in a meaningful and accessible place that students can use for reflection, in genuine honor of Beau, Connor, Elizabeth and Lamees.

It cannot be up to students to sacrifice time they might otherwise use for working or studying to take for grieving. Moreover, they will not. No matter how badly we might like to, it can feel like a waste of time. And most likely, the people you would grieve with are people you have before — not addressing the collective nature of this trauma. 

O’Rourke finished her article with a critical reflection which we urge everyone to pay attention to: “[P]erhaps the key thing I learned is that grief needs a vessel: It needs language, it needs lamentation, it needs expression, it needs demarcation in time; it demands a pause in everyday activity.” 

If nothing else, we encourage professors and administrators alike to give students the grace to pause. We have not paused — and if we do not take time to heal as a community, the effects of this collective trauma will only get stronger. The loss of our classmates is not something that can or will be forgotten.